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Is the Tonight Show Immortal? Seems Like It!

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May 29, 2009

Tonight, Tonight, Is Not Just Any Night –
America’s Jesters Keep The Tonight Show Immortal

By J. Lange Winckler

What kind of prophet was the original Tonight Show host, Steve Allen, when he told the audience on its first night of national broadcast from New York by NBC, “Boy, you think you’re tired now.  Wait ‘til you see one o’clock roll ‘round.”  The metaphorical pun not only referred to one a.m. arriving three hours later on the West Coast, but also to the prospect of his program running far into the future – nearly 55 years and as of May 29, 2009, still counting.

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Not one evening prime time television entertainment program airing either on that first night of September 27, 1954, nor even on the days that subsequent hosts Jack Parr and Johnny Carson passed on the microphone, is still being produced today.  Some daytime soap operas and of course the traditional national news broadcasts remain – but they are not in the same category as the Tonight Show ever was or will be.

National news programs gave America drama and controversy, but precious little entertainment and never irreverence.  The soaps gave America endless story lines, rare humor, and shallow chit-chat after every episode – but never culture.  The Tonight Show created slogans adapted from specific use to general application – “Hi, ho, Steverino!” became applicable in the late 1960’s and early ‘60’s to accompany a wave to some pal or acquaintance even if her name was Madeleine, while “Heeeeeeeree’s JOHNNY!” has become one of the standard forms of introducing any principal speaker or celebrity – names changed, of course, to protect the innocent.

Rarely have weeknight news programs and almost never have the daytime soaps presented the eclectic array of people from Chinese jugglers to authors and composers who have been seen on the Tonight Show.  White today’s version of the program tends to showcase celebrities and the odd comedian or singer, in decades past it was home for  truly wide array of talents as well as public figures.  Americans now actually forget that the Tonight Show competed with – and often beat – the Ed Sullivan Show as a variety theater program, with fascinating conversation along for the broadcast ride.

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Apart from a few rare courageous news reporters and anchors who dared confront authority and “established wisdom” during tumultuous decades of confrontation, American television for a long time was no hotbed of controversy – except on the Tonight Show.  Even that program at time suffered censorship, but generally the hosts knew how to bring to the stage diverse issues ranging from “sexy” rock and roll performers like Elvis Presley to civil rights, freedom of speech, global tensions, and divisive political confrontations.

Steve Allen, a wit liable to turn unpredictably whacky at any moment, was also a man of artistic talent – a musician, composer, writer and aficionado of the arts.  Allen was followed by the emotional and acerbic Jack Parr, who put his on version of the Tonight Show on the “must see” list of the majority of American homes.  When Johnny Carson came along, the program seemed to become a bit milder, yet his opening monologues were frequently the source of needle-sharp satire sparing no one.  Jay Leno’s tenure in the studio on Olive Avenue in Burbank, California, brought back a more topical and even sharper treatment of politics and politicians than Carson usually rendered.

Leno also contributed a variation on the Tonight Show slogan to popular culture.  He certainly did not invent the “musical sting,” a quick phrase of (usually) instrumental music to punctuate an image or a statement, or to separate elements occurring before and after the “sting.”   But his use of these, even more than Carson’s, has become a popular device that was not generally evident in daily American speech before Leno started hosting the show.

With Conan O’Brien’s appearance Friday night as the guest of the Tonight Show host he’s replacing on the following Monday, June 1, Jay Leno, the program seems to be endowed with an endless future.  For some viewers it is like watching a parade of bright young men step out of a fountain of youth, for many remember the slow but always interesting progress of program hosts who ever shared a certain quality of inrreverence, regard for the audience, and willingness to quit being grown-ups for a time.

There’s almost a kind of majesty in the transition of one Tonight Show host to another.  The slogan that has been used in monarchies to connote the endurance of the Crown and State adapts appropriately, too:  The King’s Jester is dead; long live the King’s Jester!

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J. Lange Winckler is an historian and writer in Tampa, Florida.  While it dates him to say so, he’s watched the Tonight Show, occasionally, since Steve Allen was its host, attended live performances by Parr, Carson and Leno.

 

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Former newspaper and magazine editor, TV news producer and radio talk show host, the author is now a professional historian and writer.

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